Jodi Malone, a volunteer coordinator and chef with the Neighborhood Cafe, takes a quick break from cooking one of her major Sunday meals. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BATH — For 10 years and counting, the Neighborhood Cafe has aimed to be a place to fill one’s stomach and soul alike.

The Neighborhood United Church of Christ has operated the cafe on two rigorously-upheld principles, according to co-Pastor Bill Bliss. First, there’s no distinction between those who are serving the food and those being served – all share the meal together.

And the other: “Our product is not food or a meal necessarily, but it’s the relationship that comes out of the whole experience,” he explained.

The food is free, nutritional, and offered to anyone, regardless of need, and the cafe is run entirely by volunteers.

Christy Dalton, one of those volunteers/patrons, called the cafe “a really nice thing, especially for people that are low income; it’s kind of a night out. They really can’t afford to go to a restaurant, so it’s very similar to that. They get to come in, sit down and be waited on.”

“The social end of it is really cool,” she added.

The Church of Christ opened the cafe in March 2010 at its former 150 Congress Ave. location, inspired by the Bath Area Food Bank, which was located there as well. The clients would “get their box of food and then walk out, looking forlorn,” Bliss recalled.

A kitchen and space to sit and eat at the church led to the cafe, designed not to resemble a soup kitchen or mess hall, but rather a restaurant – a feel that has continued at its newer 798 Washington St. location. About 20 volunteers had served 50-70 meals each Tuesday, with diners encouraged to bring food home with them to help get through the rest of the week.

But then came the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cafe and many similar operations to close. Still, “I don’t think there was any way that we were going to stop” making food available, Bliss said.

The cafe served its first to-go meal March 17, offering at least 75 servings, according to volunteer coordinator and chef Jodi Malone.

In recent weeks she has cooked a big dinner each Sunday that includes about 70-80 meals, and she makes brunch for 20-25 on both Monday and Tuesday. She produces more than 100 meals between those three days, almost all delivered, with fewer than 20 served curbside.

“For dinner I have made soups and stews since that is easier to ladle into to-go containers,” Malone said. “For brunch I’ve done frittata or boiled eggs, usually with a serving of vegetable stew and a biscuit or cookie and fruit when I can get it.”
Home bakers have supplied biscuits, cakes and cookies, and Malone gives out bags of produce from Merrymeeting Gleaners.
The stewardship of the church’s congregation largely supports the cost of the food, which is also supplemented by discounted and sometimes free items from the Good Shepherd Food Bank. Each meal costs about 50 cents to make, Bliss said.

“Demand has certainly gone up, and I expect it to keep doing so,” Malone said. “My impression is that of the existing cafe community the actual need hasn’t changed that much but that they are anxious and afraid and want the comfort of knowing the Neighborhood is still here to sustain them.”

Those deliveries, made to roughly 50 households in Bath and surrounding towns, help maintain church fellowship in a time when many people are staying home to avoid the virus.

“It’s been really hard for some of the people who are accustomed to coming and just having their Tuesday there,” Bliss said. “… The spirit of community, love and healing, and all the things that we’re committed to, are definitely present in even those distance deliveries.”

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